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The proof of acupuncture’s healing power

If you’ve followed my blogs for a while, you’ll know that from time to time I’ve written about the role of acupuncture within Western clinical medicine and the contribution it can make in an integrated approach to care.

Three years ago I wrote an article that dealt with the clinical evidence of acupuncture’s impact on a range of conditions, and presented evidence to show the BMJ’s own assessment criteria was unable to determine the efficacy of half of all the drugs routinely prescribed and administered by the NHS.

This week, my view on the power of acupuncture to play a positive role in the treatment of all manner of conditions appears to have been vindicated.

In a collection of specially commissioned research papers the BMJ has concluded that despite a wealth of research that demonstrates its efficacy in the treatment of a range of debilitating conditions, acupuncture is not being utilised effectively by Britain’s public health system.

The number of randomised research studies into acupuncture has increased exponentially over the last decade. Looking at the ten years from 2010, the number of studies exploring how effective acupuncture is in treating common medical issues grew from around 10 per year in 2010 to a little shy of 500 per year a decade later.

But the evidence these studies collated, the BMJ concludes, has not been applied effectively in how public health professionals – GPs, consultants, and other clinicians – have considered acupuncture within the scope of treatments available to patients.

This is given stark context in how studies were applied in assessing acupuncture as a treatment within 77 known complaints and conditions.

Before reading further, keep in mind the statistic I referred to earlier in this article:

In 50% of cases prior to the discontinuation of its use in 2016, the pharmacology assessment framework used by the BMJ could not conclusively determine whether the drugs being assessed were effective.

A research-based overview of acupuncture1 published by the BMJ in 2021 found ‘… that of 77 diseases investigated, acupuncture showed a moderate or large effect with moderate or high certainty evidence in eight diseases or conditions.’

Those conditions are:

  • post-stroke aphasia (the inability to form or recognise speech)
  • neck and shoulder pain
  • myofascial (chronic muscle) pain
  • fibromyalgia (chronic dull aching) pain
  • non-specific lower back pain
  • improved lactation success within 24 hours of delivery
  • reduction in the severity of vascular dementia symptoms
  • improvement of allergic rhinitis (nasal inflammation typically caused by hay fever and animal hair allergies)

It’s important to remember here that the several research papers that form the BMJ’s collected study into acupuncture deal primarily with physiological pain rather than with mental health.

But it doesn’t seem unreasonable to suggest that if acupuncture is shown to have a demonstrable effect on certain physical symptoms – musculoskeletal pain being the primary example and, perhaps not coincidentally, one of the most common reasons for people to come to see us – then it might equally be expected to show positive results as a treatment for mental health conditions such as stress and anxiety.

But what does all this mean in the real world? Well, I would argue all of this leads to two avenues of thought.

1. The NHS needs to take advantage of the treatment options offered by acupuncture

Today, as was the case three years ago when I wrote the first of my articles dealing with the mythology that surrounds acupuncture, too few patients who consult with their GPs are told about acupuncture as a treatment option.

Fewer still are offered acupuncture as part of their treatment, even though the NHS does now allow patients to be referred to private acupuncture practitioners.

Given the wide range of evidence that now exists to support the use of acupuncture as a treatment for some conditions, the NHS owes it to people to include it as part of the suite of treatments available. Some, including me, would argue it is morally obliged to do so.

I know from my own experience that GPs in particular are now far more open-minded to the possibilities that acupuncture and other previously ignored therapies offer.

But until Public Health England and, particularly, the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) take an establishment lead and embrace those opportunities they will always be either the preserve of the enlightened, or a last-resort afterthought.

2. People should have confidence in acupuncture as an easily accessible, affordable, and effective treatment for a range of common conditions

There has long been a stigma attached to some areas of complementary medicine, and it would be foolish to pretend otherwise.

However, such is the scale of acupuncture practice in the western world – 10 million sessions performed in the United States annually, 4 million here in the UK at the last estimate – that universities and teaching hospitals have been increasingly motivated to conduct clinically robust studies.

These have consistently proved that acupuncture is light years away from being the questionable practice its critics would like us all to believe.

For my own part, long before I became an acupuncturist (at a time when I was working in clinical Western medicine), I have seen at first hand the remarkable healing effect that acupuncture can have.

And while you may sit there and think, well, she’s an acupuncturist – she would say that, wouldn’t she? – there’s now rational, tangible, and compelling evidence to prove it.

If you’d like to find out more about how acupuncture can help to tackle a condition you’re struggling with, or you’d like to talk confidentially about any concerns or questions you may have about your general health or acupuncture as a treatment, please get in touch for a free, no-obligation chat – I’d love to hear from you.

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